Help us prepare for the fanciest dinner of our lives.
June 9, 2005 4:55 PM   Subscribe

Help us prepare for the fanciest dinner of our lives.

My boyfriend and I have reservations next week at one of the classiest restaurants in Portland, Genoa, where we'll be having a seven-course prix fixe meal. We're not rich, we just both love food and thought it would be a great way to mark a special occasion.

I grilled reservations guy on the phone for advice when I scheduled our dinner. Will they accomodate our special dietary needs? He says yes. What should we wear? He says business casual or nicer.

But there's a lot more I'm not sure about. How long should we expect our meal to take? Should we try not to finish everything on our plates, just to make sure there's room in our bellies for the rest of the courses? Or do seven-course meals come with smaller serving sizes? Do the same rules of tipping apply when you're spending $200-plus for dinner as when you're spending $20 (15-20%)? Are doggie bags completely taboo? Are there other etiquette considerations we should prepare for before we arrive?

There's also question of wine. The restaurant's web site lists Italian , American and French wines, with bottles ranging in price from around $21 all the way up to $400, and I am nervous about accidentally tripling our bill by ordering the wrong thing. We both love red wines, but are certainly not experts on vinology. Can anyone suggest an affordable bottle off this list?

Any other tips for enjoying the evening and feeling comfortable instead of outclassed?
posted by croutonsupafreak to Food & Drink (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Yes, the more courses there are, the smaller each one is. If the meal is well-prepared, you shouldn't have to worry about portions. Eat the little bits on your plate and, over the course of 2-4 hours, you'll become nicely full, but not queasily so.

Doggie bags are pretty taboo, but you really shouldn't need any.

It's important to trust the service. Assume they're competent unless something indicates otherwise. Ask as many questions as you'd like (about the food or wine). Say "I'd like a bottle/glass that will best pair with this dish/meal and I'd like to get something under $XX." Unless you actually have a strong personal preference, and you think it would match particularly well, leave it in the hands of the people who know better. Remember that the second-least-expensive bottle in a given category usually has the highest markup, if you care about that sort of thing. Let the server wipe the crumbs off your table and replace your fork after every course (or not, if they don't do that). Just remember to relax, enjoy the food, and let them do the work... after all, that's what you're paying for. Unless you're making a racket or causing some other kind of disturbance, it's not like your neighboring tables will pick you out to be some kind of pleb and stare down their noses at you.
posted by rxrfrx at 5:06 PM on June 9, 2005

Been to Genoa twice, and dude, it's still Portland. Wear a tie and you'll be one of maybe two or three guys wearing one. Leave the jeans in the closet, but I doubt it's going to be the "fanciest meal of your lives". Any wedding dinner will be fancier.

On the other hand, it is quite likely to be one of the BEST! Put yourself in the capable hands of your waiter and relax.

I tipped 20% and felt fine about it.

It's about 2.5-3 hours for the seven-course, but it'll go by fast.

You won't need a doggy bag. I've left pleasantly full, but I felt much more stuffed from the burger and fries I wolfed down for lunch this afternoon. You'll eat it all.

By the way: I hated asparagus before Genoa. Now I like it. I hated beets before Genoa. Now I like them (when they're sauteed in SCADS of butter, anyway). Be open to new things, even if you've never liked them before.
posted by dragstroke at 5:14 PM on June 9, 2005

Oooh, totally whiffed your gender. Sorry for incorrect fashion advice there...
posted by dragstroke at 5:15 PM on June 9, 2005

ooh, this sounds like a lot of fun! Dinner time, I would budget around 2 hours for a seven course. Portion sizes will be much smaller, think tapas-sized. Even though they are smaller, I sometimes have trouble eating everything, so I usually only eat half of the entree portion, but I'm a small eater, so YMMV. Doggy bags I would consider taboo, but I've seen people get them even at the nicest restaurant. They won't refuse you or anything, if the staff is any good they'll make all your requests seem perfectly reasonable.

Wine, I would ask them. See if they offer a wine pairing for the prix fixe, most places do. It wouldn't cost more than an average bottle of wine, and will be well worth it. There's always a huge variety in wine, so one way to do it if you don't want to ask specifically about price is to pick a few in a price range you're comfortable with, and ask the sommelier (the wine guy) or the waiter which of those he would recommend.

Remember to remind your waiter about your dietary restrictions at the beginning of the meal, sometimes the person taking the reservation doesn't pass it on to the right person.

Tipping 20% is fine, all the usual rules apply.

Don't think about being outclassed! Chances are the majority of the people there are the same as you, out on a splurge for a special occasion. The waitstaff too, are usually exceptional, and won't look down on you at all, unless you are acting rudely etc. Just relax and enjoy your dinner.
posted by orangskye at 5:17 PM on June 9, 2005

By no means should you feel pressured to finish everything on your plate, especially if you'd rather not finish it. The portions will likely be suitably sized so that you can finish everything if you want, but you'll feel quite full. And then there's dessert. ;)

Don't think twice about having things packed up to take home. You're paying for the food. Don't let it go to the trash if you like it.

Tipping percentages apply as per usual.

As far as the wine list goes, I'm familiar with California reds. Silver Oak stands out, but it's $100. This is not much more than you'd pay for it outside of a restaurant, and it's supposedly an excellent year. If you're into wine scores Robert Parker gave this one a 92.
posted by pmbuko at 5:19 PM on June 9, 2005

All of the above is great advice, and I'll specifically second this:

It's Portland, wear what you feel spiffy in, whatever that may be. Ask your server to recommend a wine, that's what they're there for. Doggie bags are fine.

Also, use your silverware from the outside of the setting in. Butter individual bite-sized pieces of bread, not the whole slice.

Have fun! It's a fabulous place to eat.
posted by Specklet at 5:29 PM on June 9, 2005

Can anyone suggest an affordable bottle off this list?

It's tempting to order an Italian wine, but I know nothing about them....

I don't think you can go wrong with any of those Oregon Pinot Noirs: the Willamette Valley produces some of the best Pinot Noirs in the world, and it's a very versatile wine. I'd be a little hesitant to go with a Cabernet; a good, strong California Cabernet could really overpower some of the more delicate dishes on that menu.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:58 PM on June 9, 2005

Regarding the wine - ask the waiter/waitress or, the wine steward (Greg Newman - as identified on their website) what they recommend. They'll have suggestions. Don't be shy to tell them the price range you are willing to spend per bottle. They'll welcome the chance to assist you.
posted by ericb at 6:00 PM on June 9, 2005

On preview - what orangskye said.
posted by ericb at 6:01 PM on June 9, 2005

Response by poster: These are great comments. I'm feeling more chill already. Thanks! I still welcome more comments/thoughts, of course.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 6:21 PM on June 9, 2005

Grilled reservations guy tends to be a bit tough unless marinated with a good red wine.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:23 PM on June 9, 2005

I've been there twice and both times were wonderful. It's not a snooty place. When I was there, the tables were in one room and everyone dining seemed to be there for the food and not to be seen. The staff was unobtrusive and not condescending. Don't forgo eating normally earlier in the day. I made that mistake the first time as an already undernourished student and by the end of the 7th course I was "drunk" from eating (no alcohol was consumed). I've enjoyed everything I've had there, but the geoduck in particular was an epiphany. Have fun!
posted by lobakgo at 6:56 PM on June 9, 2005

As Specklet said, if you really want to have a good time, enjoy your dinner, and wear what you want. One of the great things I love about living in Portland is the lanck of pretensiousness that permeates (most) of the city. I've been in some of the best restaurants in the city in shorts and t-shirts and never received a sneer or house 'dinner jacket'. Have a good time, if you're from out of town I'd recommend checking out Bijou Cafe for a breakfast. Great food.
posted by efalk at 7:04 PM on June 9, 2005

Full disclosure: I'm a white-tablecloth waiter for a living, and I used to manage a wine bar.

Oregon pinot noirs are a great suggestion! They're soft and food-friendly and one good bottle should see a couple through a seven-course meal, unless y'all drink like I do...then buy two. I've been impressed with Morgan Vineyards and Rex Hill (is that from Oregon? Dunno...), but there is so much variety in pinots that you might consider going to your local wine store and asking to taste a couple.

I agree with the post approving to-go boxes. You bought it, you should take it home with you if you want to. The staff won't mind at all.

As for tipping. If the maitre'd gets you a great table, slide him some cash (in New York I'd say $20, so maybe $10 in Portland). As a general rule, the closer you are to the kitchen, the worse your table is. I like sitting by the kitchen because I like to watch the action, but if you're having a quiet romantic meal for two, the further away the better. Let the maitre 'd know your preferences. Remember that your waiter is going to be tipping out her backwaiter and busser, so a 15% tip comes out to more like 10% after tipshare. If the service is average, that's fine. If it's exceptional, leave 20% or more. If you really want the waiter to love you, pay by credit card and then tip in cash.

Ask lots of questions. Waiters are trained to answer them, it's part of their job, and they look at it as an opportunity to sell their products and point out menu items that they may really like that you've overlooked.

Also, consider buying a great bottle of wine and bringing it with you. They'll charge you a ten or fifteen dollar corkage fee, but you'll be assured that you'll love the wine you're drinking.

Have fun.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 7:51 PM on June 9, 2005

I've been to quite a few white-linens in Atlanta, so guess I'll add my experiences:
Clothes: I'm a jeans a t-shirt kinda' guy, and the extent of my dressing up is khakis and a polo shirt. I've gone in jeans a a tee before without much of a problem- They're still getting money! Double that in Portland and the comments above and you can wear pretty much whatever.
Food: YES YES YES tell them what you want. Sadly, one of the worst steaks I've ever had was at a premier steak place in Atlanta (Chops, IIRC). However, their speciality is charring the steak. I HATE my food charred, but I didn't want to say anything b/c I figured it would be inappropriate. BAD idea. Pay that much for a steak, and I should be able to get it cooked however I damn well please :)
posted by jmd82 at 8:17 PM on June 9, 2005

One thing - if you're not heavy-duty wine drinkers you'll be happy to know that any of the bottles that such a restaurant has on their list will be perfectly fine. You don't have to go up in price to get really good wine any more like you might have had to do 15-20 years ago. The wine industry has undergone a revolution and production methods are so much better now that even modestly priced bottles can be very very good.

I don't know many of the bottles on the list, but I do prefer sticking to Italian wines with Italian cuisine. I'm sure the $36 Barbaresco would be fine, and it's very likely a decent pairing with the whole menu.

But the advice above is great - ask the wine steward what he suggests. These guys take pride in being able to please you with anything they have selected to list. And don't worry about specifying a low price ceiling.
posted by mikel at 8:53 PM on June 9, 2005

I've never had a seven course meal in a restaurant, so don't know the score, but I wouldn't really want to have a single wine to go with multiple dishes. In my experience of multi-course meals there have been varied wines to match the varied dishes.

It might not be possible financially when there's just the two of you, but if the restaurant is good, maybe they have good wines by the glass? or half-bottles?
posted by anadem at 10:03 PM on June 9, 2005

I agree with Mikel on the $36 Barbaresco-- it's a fruity wine that will match almost everything. There's also a $47 Amarone on there that you might not want to miss, since 1997 was a banner year for lots of Italian reds. The Italian whites also look like good bargains, but personally, I'd go for the French Sauvignon de Saint-Bris for $29 they have under 'Loire' if I were interested in a good all-purpose white.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:12 PM on June 9, 2005

The other thing to remember about a seven course dinner - at least in European restaurants - is that it's not like seven main courses.

In a French restaurant you might get "amuse bouche" courses (for example a very tiny soup; or a sorbet or "pre-dessert" to refresh your tastebuds in preparation for the next course. And following the dessert there might be cheese. In an Italian restaurant there might be an antipasto and/or zuppa (soup) dish before, and possibly fruit afterwards. So you're still looking at your three main courses, with a few smaller dishes in between.

Eat slowly, talk, drink and let the meal take as long as it can - I would agree with the two to three hours comment, usually three hours in my case! Have a few drinks _before_ going in to the restaurant, it will loosen you up and you won't feel so starchy about the whole thing.

Let the staff serve you - that's what they're being paid for - and don't feel nervous. If it's a good restaurant they will make you feel like a king or queen even if you're a bum who just walked in off the street!

Finally, speaking from the European perspective again, the doggy bag phenomenon always strikes me as strange. Every UK restaurant will give you food in a doggy bag if you request it, but I've never seen anyone other than a North American ask for their meal in a doggy bag. Just my opinion, but a good meal shouldn't be so big that there's food to spare. It's a particularly American thing to serve people more food than they could possibly hope to eat. This seven course meal should (I hope) be enough to make you pleasantly full without having left so much on your plate that you need to use a doggy bag.
posted by skylar at 12:59 AM on June 10, 2005

You've gotten a lot of good advice here, but I'd like to chime in to agree that a single wine for the whole meal seems like a shame. Ideally you'd have a different one for every one or two courses. See if they offer by-the-glass wine pairings, and don't be afraid to ask questions; keep in mind that the staff is there to help you out, not intimidate you.
posted by lackutrol at 6:58 AM on June 10, 2005

One rule of thumb for ordering wine in a restaurant is that the bottle will be marked up about 3x. So an $24 bottle of wine is like an $8 bottle in the store. Stay away from anything less than $40-$50 for a "special" occasion.

Work with your server to match a wine with the entrees. Don't worry about them trying to steer you toward a more expensive bottle. Even if they do, you won't miss that $20 later, I promise.
posted by jimfl at 7:08 AM on June 10, 2005

How long should we expect our meal to take? Should we try not to finish everything on our plates, just to make sure there's room in our bellies for the rest of the courses? Or do seven-course meals come with smaller serving sizes? Do the same rules of tipping apply when you're spending $200-plus for dinner as when you're spending $20 (15-20%)? Are doggie bags completely taboo? Are there other etiquette considerations we should prepare for before we arrive?

2 hours; up to you; yes; yes; no.

The man at the table will be expected to participate in the wine ritual. Examine the label; nod knowingly; sniff the cork. Take the offered glass by the stem, swish the wine around to see how it sticks to the side of the glass, put your nose in and take a sniff, and finally take a sip and pronounce it drinkable.

I frankly would prefer an $8 bottle of Italian table wine to some of the over-oaked stuff coming out of Napa these days. If I were ordering off that wine list I'd want the 2001 Dolcetto - it's a very flexible wine and there's nothing complicated about it. Remember that a restaurant like this that prides itself on good food isn't going to put bad wine on their list. The wines that are on there are on there because someone selected them.

Dress exactly as it pleases you to do so. Something that makes you feel elegant is good. If you don't like feeling elegant, wear something that makes you happy.

posted by ikkyu2 at 7:22 AM on June 10, 2005

Oh yeah - when he proposes, look surprised.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:23 AM on June 10, 2005

I second the wine pairings idea... see if they offer it and if it isn't too expensive go for it! You'll be sampling a variety of dishes and it'll be that much more enjoyable to have an appropriate wine with each course.
posted by idest at 10:40 AM on June 10, 2005

Congrats, I'm a super foodie and my fiance and I feel there's no better way to strike the forge of rememberance (ha!) than an exquisite meal.

Relax, it's been said here and it's right, just relax and have fun, in a proper restaurant which is about great food the maitre d'/wait staff will be skilled in such a way that you'll feel at home and accepted immediately, you should never feel looked down on or patronized.

Any faux pas you may commit will be noticed, corrected and forgotten likely before you ever become aware of it.

I've been to 4 star places that are about being seen (ah-hem cough cough "C") and I've been to 4 star places that are about amazing food (the stunning "Bishop's") and the difference is striking. (really striking, I can post details if you care)

You're lucky Oregon allows you to bring your own wine, paying $10-$15 corkage on a lovely $50 bottle you bring is a lot better than paying a 3x markup for a $20 bottle from the restaurant. It also adds to the "event" feeling of the evening.
posted by Cosine at 12:15 PM on June 10, 2005

Sorry, but I disagree completely with jimfl's comment that you should avoid less expensive wines at restaurants because of the mark-up. Not all restaurants charge 3X the price-- some charge as little as 1.5X the cost of the wine, depending on the city, country, and arrangements with the wine suppliers. That said, there's absolutely nothing that says that a $50 bottle is going to be better than a $20 bottle. Even $200 bottles are not necessarily better. You can't even say that, in general, more expensive wine is better, as pricing is determined by hundreds of simultaneously contingent factors.

I've been very fortunate to try quite a bit of super-expensive ($500+/bottle) wine and quite a bit of inexpensive wine ($8/bottle), often side-by-side at the same tastings, with the same group of oenophiles and the responsible importers/winemakers, and if I've learned one thing, it's that the price of the wine is categorically not a proxy for quality. You should absolutely never be afraid of looking for less expensive, yet delicious wine.
posted by yellowcandy at 1:21 PM on June 10, 2005

I want to echo what yellowcandy has written. At a restaurant like this, you're not going to find any crap on the wine list. Everything will be at least acceptable.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:43 PM on June 10, 2005

Just for fun, I compared a few of Genoa's wine list prices with some online resources. It may interest you to know that they're giving you a pretty good deal, especially on the Oregon wines. The two I randomly checked are less than 1.5X retail price. The one mid-price Italian I checked was around 2X retail. I am often shocked by the prices restaurants charge for mediocre wines, but these guys seem to be decent. And it looks like the selection is quite nice too.
posted by lackutrol at 2:23 PM on June 10, 2005

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